Thursday, September 30, 2010

Simple Polenta [Grits]

Polenta has a bad reputation as a very fussy starch, but it may help your confidence to think of it as "corn grits" -- a simple, salt-of-the-earth sort of dish.  The name polenta is derived from pulmentum, the Latin word for "porridge."  In practice, the big difference between "polenta" and "grits" is that the former is traditionally adulterated with cheese and butter [and sometimes milk] while the latter makes use of bacon fat [and cheese on occasion, but those are usually called "cheese grits"].  Despite these conventions, a plain mixture of cornmeal, water, and salt can rightfully go by either name.

Polenta making is often seen as hot and tedious, requiring a long simmer with constant stirring to prevent the dreaded clumps... but this, my friends, is completely unnecessary.   Clump-free polenta can be made in your microwave in 10 minutes or less with a minimum of stirring!
[I sound like an infomercial, but wait! There's more!]

Actually, there's not.  You can certainly get fancy with your polenta, but its glory lies in its simplicity -- you don't have to do much at all.... and that makes it a regular guest at my weeknight dinner table.

Recipe: Microwave Polenta [Grits]

Monday, September 27, 2010

Simple Berry Dessert

I threw this together to satisfy a must-have-something-dessert-ish impulse one evening during the June strawberry season.  I didn't think it was worth sharing, but I've made it so many times over this summer with various berries (blueberries may have been my favorite) and now a second round of berries have appeared in the markets, so I may as well share the fun. You could certainly add a scoop of ice cream, but it was really nice just like this... and pretty.  

To make: Slice a pint of berries [or halve cherries, or use whole blueberries].  Stir in a tablespoon of maple syrup and another of amaretto. Set it aside to macerate for 10-20 minutes.  Toast 1/4 cup nuts until sizzling [use pre-sliced or crush after toasting].  Sprinkle over strawberries and toss a pinch of salt over the top. Garnish with chopped fresh basil or tarragon (optional).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Steel-Cut Oatmeal, a Whole-Grain Breakfast Favorite

The weather's turning crisp up here in Yankee Land.  Right now the days are sunny and warm, but the pumpkins and winter squash are appearing in the farmers' markets and the floor feels chilly against my
bare feet in the morning.  Hence, it's time to resurrect the oatmeal breakfast.

I was never a fan of oatmeal as a kid unless it was rolled oats in cookies (surprise).  My mom never made it for breakfast, but for some reason we had packages of the instant, stir-in-hot-water stuff in the pantry that I tried a couple of times and found the texture extremely offputting.  Somewhere in my quest for tasty whole grains I discovered steel-cut oats and the difference is stark.  Steel-cut oats have a nice toothy bite, nutty flavor, and tons of soluble fiber that sticks to your ribs on brisk bike ride to work.  They do, however, take a bit longer to cook (~25 minutes) and I have two appliance-base ways around that:

1) Throw it in a rice cooker when I first get out of bed and go on about my morning business until it's ready.
2) Put it in a slow cooker with a "keep-warm" function the night before and it's ready when I am.  Mini crockpots are perfect for this, but I just use my giant Cuisinart and nuke the leftovers on subsequent days.

With both appliances, use 1/4 cup steel cut oats, 1 cup water, and a pinch of salt for each serving. There will be a gooey layer on top and maybe some crusty bits on the bottom by the time it's finished.
Just stir it to combine before serving.

My favorite oatmeal: raisins, pecans (sometimes toasted), maple syrup, and a splash of half & half.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cold-Wilted Spinach

In my quest to heat my kitchen as little as possible, I discovered an interesting way to wilt spinach by beating it up.  It started with a tomato salad I was letting sit to meld the flavors.  About an hour before I was going to serve it, I decided to stir in some baby spinach in as well.  When I came back to it, the spinach was completely wilted -- not in a sad-salad kind of way, but more like I'd given it a whirl in the skillet before combining.

It wasn't exactly what I was going for at the time, but I was intrigued. A couple of nights later, I tried making a wilted spinach salad to go with cold soba noodles [no recipe, but they were something like this].  About half an hour before dinner, I tossed the spinach with the dressing, left it on the counter, and gave it a stir every time I passed by.  Come dinner, I squeezed out all of the juice, plated it in a little mound, and poured the dressing over the top.  It was perfect.
I'm guessing it has something to do with the acids in the tomatoes first and the vinegar second, aided by the bruising caused by the stirring.  It's probably not chemically identical to cooked spinach (though it could be, ceviche-style) and it's really only a valuable technique when lack of heat is more important than speed [a cold salad or... a picnic?] but I liked it... so I'm sharing it with you.

Recipe: Cold-Wilted Spinach with Soy and Sesame
Hourensou no Goma-Ae

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Undisputed Victory

If you ever read my recipes, you know I generally use equal parts white whole wheat flour (or WWWF, as it's known on my grocery lists) and oat flour to make a whole-grain base that acts just like all-purpose flour. [Regular {red} whole wheat flour and whole wheat pastry flour comes close, but it's a little gritty.]
Back in Texas, the only brand of WWWF available was King Arthur and they make a great product, but it ain't cheap and I use a lot of it.  Several months back, our Trader Joe's started carrying a store brand WWWF at roughly half the price and I was, well, probably more excited than I should have been about that five pound bundle of joy. 
After months of testing, I'm sticking with KA for my WWWF.  As you can [sort of] see in the picture, the TJ flour [right] isn't ground as finely and the baked results have been closer in texture to a red whole wheat base.  It's fine in breads and quick breads when I want a hearty wheat flavor, but in cookies and cakes where the wheat is mostly for structure, it doesn't play nearly as well with others as King Arthur. 
And now that I'm committed, I figured I can save money by buying it in larger quantities once I find a spare corner in my tiny kitchen for a 40lb sack...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Gazpacho for Grownups

The tomatoes are finally ripe here in Yankee Land.  I think I understand why eating green tomatoes is such a Southern thing.  Up here you only get one big crop that takes forever to ripen... eating any before they're ready is just wasteful.

I bought ~8 pounds of heirlooms at the farmers' market this week and we've been eating them in:
in paella, with our last chunk of cured venison sausage
as a raw salad, with herbs from the garden
as bruschetta, with homemade rosemary bread
with hummus plates, which reminds me I need to ask JG if I can post his recipe
stuffed full of taggelio (a riff on these), which was fine, but not amazing
and -- my favorite-- as light gazpacho, with ceviched bay scallops added to the individual soup bowls.
[The scallops were actually too tender and mild to add interest, but the soup was still fantastic.]

A couple days later I was sipping a little of the leftover gazpacho straight from the storage container. [It was cold and I was thirsty; don't tell JG.] It was just a little spicy from the poblano I'd used in lieu of bell pepper and it was so refreshing to drink! It occurred to me that the only thing that would make it better [like so many things] was a shot of alcohol, using the gazpacho as a base like a lighter alternative to a bloody Mary.

I mixed 2 parts gazpacho to 1 part vodka [I'm keen on Tito's], shook it with a little ice, and garnished with a pick-full of olives and a big fat caper berry... and it was sublime.   It was also little dangerous, because it goes down so very, very nicely.  The flavors of the pepper and cucumber were present without asserting themselves and the olives and made a nice brine-y counterpoint.  [I also salted the glass rim, but I'm not sure it's necessary.]

I kept calling it a gazpacho martini, which I know is a misnomer as it contains neither gin nor vermouth; I guess it's just a "gazpocktail", which doesn't sound nearly refined enough for its sophisticated flavor. Whatever its name, it'll definitely be the belle of my next brunch.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Bike Spider

JG left his bike on the porch for a day and a half and discovered someone had set up camp in his front tire and laid an enormous egg sack.  Wikipedia says they're up to an inch in diameter and this one was at least that big.
 She didn't react much when JG transferred the sack, via stick, to the hibiscus bush.  Frankly, if I'd just laid that many eggs, I'd be beat, too.

Bonus:  Here's one rolling a wasp on YouTube.  It'd be even better set to "Flight of the Bumblebee."